- Original release year: 1994
- Consoles: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis (later: Every console ever)
Okay, okay, I’m kinda cheating here. I mean, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were technically released as two separate games. Some people might not know though that Sonic 3 can be locked onto the top of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge for a special experience (the same can, kinda, be done with Sonic 1 and 2). Some casual gamers might be under the impression that the lock-on feature was a gimmicky feature, but in truth, in regards to Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, they are supposed to be locked on for what is considered the full experience.
You see, during the development of the follow up to Sonic 2, Sonic Team were struggling to fit their vision of Sonic 3 onto one cartridge. So, due to the game’s ginormous size (compared to the first two Sonic games), as well as the save feature, the decision was made to essentially split the game in two. I guess the modern equivalent is episodic games.
In other words, if you want to experience the full Sonic 3, you need to combine the two cartridges. This is essential in order to get the full, true experience of Sonic 3.
So this is considered by many Sonic fans to be the best Sonic game of all time. It’s kinda easy to see why, although Sonic 2 is always going to be most dear to my heart. For a start, the graphical engine has received a rather lovely upgrade. Sonic had never looked so good when these games were released and they’re two of the most technically impressive games on the Genesis and Sega Mega Drive.
Next, it introduced the fan favourite, Knuckles (i.e. the last additional character to be introduced that was just as awesome as Sonic and wasn’t annoying as hell), who could glide and climb walls, adding another interesting gameplay mechanic to the mix.
Then there is the newly introduced save feature, meaning you would never lose your progress after reaching the game over screen ever again.
Finally, there’s the level design which is just sublime, for the most part, although some stages are just ridiculously frustrating. That said, despite the odd frustrating level, I love the presentation and how you now transition into the following stages seamlessly via the use of minor real-time cut scenes between the levels.
The zones in Sonic’s final adventure on the Mega Drive are the largest and most colourful and beautiful out of all the classic Mega Drive Sonic games. Sonic 3 & Knuckles levels are just huge and compared to prior Sonic games, I’d say there’s more of a focus on platforming, with there being more challenging obstacles to make your way across. Some of these are cheap though, which makes the game more annoying to play than it should be. Unfortunately, it must be said that there are some levels that just plain suck.
With all that said, although I find some levels frustrating, Sonic 3 and Knuckles does feature some of my favourite zones too. For example Flying Battery Zone and Sky Sanctuary Zone are two sets of very impressive levels, the latter of which is particularly gorgeous.
It’s also worth mentioning that this time, there are two different bonus stages and special stages. The former come in the form of a few different mini games that allow you to gain more coins and/or power ups. The latter is a quasi-3D stage in which you need to hit blue balls and avoid red balls. Run through all the blue balls and you’ll gain an chaos emerald.
Speaking of the power ups mentioned in the prior paragraph, by the way, they’ve changed for Sonic 3 & Knuckles in a really interesting way. For example, there’s the water power-up, which puts you in a bubble. This means you can now bounce and run underwater without worrying about running out of breath. Then there’s the fire power-up, which makes you immune to fire attacks and means you can do a little fire glide attack. Finally (have I missed any?), there’s the lighting power-up, which acts as a magnet for rings, attracting them to you from a short distance.
So overall, Sonic 3 & Knuckles was the largest and most ambitious Sonic game of all time upon its release. It’s also considered the final game in the classic Sonic franchise, before the series majorly jumped the shark. Some considered it the peak of the series and in many respects it is. That said, some of the stages are frustrating and there’s no denying that stages in the latter half (the Sonic & Knuckles half) are mostly superior to the first half. Nevertheless, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, whether you consider them one game or two, are both classic Sonic games that every one needs to play at least once.